Moss Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Moss Surname Meaning

There have been two principal origins of the Moss surname, one English and the other Jewish.  The English version came from the Old English word mos, meaning “bog” or “morass,” and would describe someone who lived by a bog or morass. 

The Jewish form was from Moses, the Jewish leader who led the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses often became Moss in England and America as a less identifiable Jewish name.  

Moss Surnames Resources on The Internet

Moss Surname Ancestry

  • from NW England and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, Canada, St. Helena and Australia

EnglandThe English version of the Moss surname seems centered around Lancashire and the northwest, the Jewish version around London and the southeast. 

Lancashire.  The Moss surname has continued to be found in areas where mosses or peat bogs have existed.  Thus the largest number of Mosses in the 1881 census was in Ashton under Lyne, close by Ashton Moss. Manchester and Salford were also well represented in bogs and in names.

From Manchester came the Rev. William Moss, born there in 1571 and father of one of the early settlers of the New Haven colony in America, and Edward (Ted) Moss, born there in 1852 and the theater impresario who founded Moss Empires.

A Moss line on Merseyside began with John Moss of Hurst House, born around 1717.  His son Thomas moved to Liverpool where he operated as a timber merchant on the Salthouse dock, bringing in his son John as a partner in 1803.  John Moss was to make his fortune as a banker and Caribbean plantation owner.  He built a fine new house for himself, Otterpool House, along the Otterpool creek in 1812.

The Moss peat bogs and Moss name extended southward into Staffordshire and eastward into Yorkshire. The Moss name featured among the potters of Stoke-on-Trent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

JewishPerhaps the first to arrive was Samuel Moses from Alsace in France who was probably in London sometime in the 1780’s. His son Jacob had children who emigrated to Australia and Canada in the 1840’s and 1850’s, generally as Moss, and were instrumental in the formation of Jewish congregations in Sydney and Montreal.

Of those who stayed in London was Moses Moss who started what became the Moss Bros clothing chain with his two shops in London’s Covent Garden in 1851.  After Moses’s death in 1894 Moss Bros remained in family hands through his sons Alfred and George.  George’s son Harry followed Alfred as the next “Guvnor;” while other family members were on the company board.

Another Moss family began in Whitechapel in the East End of London in the mid-19th century with Nathan Moses and then with Abraham Moss who married outside his faith. Abraham’s son Alfred was a successful dentist in London and a part-time racing driver.

Alfred’s son Stirling Moss, who got bullied at school for being Jewish, grew up to be the famous racing driver; while his sister Pat achieved her own fame as one of the most successful women rally drivers of all time.

Other noted Jewish families in the 19th century were:

  • the Moss family of Portsea in Hampshire, headed by Joseph Moss a glass merchant
  • and the Moss family in Stepney and Bermondsey, bootmakers and leather workers.

IrelandMoss or Mosse is an Ulster name, mainly found in Tyrone and along the Tyrone-Donegal border. If Irish, the name probably originates from the Gaelic Maolmona, where the suffix –mona is thought to have derived from moin meaning “peat bog.” 

America.  John Moss was one of the early settlers of the New Haven colony, arriving there on the Hector in 1637. His origins are uncertain. Some sources have him coming from Lancashire, others from Berkshire.  He died in Wallingford, Connecticut in 1707 apparently at the great age of 103.

The line from his grandson John claims Clint Eastwood as a descendant; from another grandson Benjamin Charles William Post and Dina Merriill as descendants.  Sometime in the 1800’s the surname spelling changed from Moss to Morse, although some lines remained Moss.

Virginia and the South.  Edward Moss from Lancashire appears to have been the progenitor of an early Moss family in York county, Virginia dating back to the 1640’s and possibly earlier.  John Moss of this line fought in the Revolutionary War and was a farmer in Fairfax county, as were his sons William and Thomas.

Another Moss line was that beginning with John Moss who was born in Goochland county, Virginia in 1707.  After the Revolutionary War some stayed in Virginia, others moved to the Carolinas, while the line from Nathaniel Moss headed further south and eventually made its home around 1812 in Louisiana.

Georgia has a relatively large Moss population today. The earliest arrival might well have been Joseph Moss from Yorkshire who was in Clarke county by 1803 and married Sophia Easley there ten years later.

Then there was a Virginia line that passed through Kentucky and settled in Paris, Missouri. Preston B. Moss headed west from there to Billings, Montana in 1892 where he built himself an extravagant red-stoned mansion. It served as the family home until 1984.  It has the reputation of being haunted.

Jewish.   John Moss from London immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1790’s and was one of its early merchants.  His grandson Lucien, born in 1831, is remembered for his philanthropy and for the scrapbooks he left behind describing Jewish life in America.

Canada.  An exodus of fishermen from Dorset to Newfoundland in the 1780’s included two Moss brothers, William and John, from Corfe Castle.  They settled initially in Keels and Open Hall near Bonavista Bay before spreading across Newfoundland.  Their story was covered in Malcolm Moss’s 2014 book The Mosses of Bonavista Bay and Beyond.

St. Helena.  The remote Atlantic island of St. Helena was an unlikely setting for a Jewish Moss family from London. George Moss had come to work for the Jewish entrepreneur Saul Solomon who had arrived on the island by accident in 1790.  Moss lived for more than forty years at Longwood House which had been Napoleon’s first home of exile there.  Many of his descendants emigrated to New Zealand in the 1850’s and 1860’s.  Frederick Moss prospered as a businessman in Dunedin.

Australia and New Zealand.  Down Under attracted other Jewish Moss settlers as well.  Joseph Moss had left London via Australia for New Zealand in the early 1860’s where he was a music teacher and choirmaster in Dunedin. His son Matthew returned to Australia, in this case to Western Australia, and became a cabinet minister there in the early 1900’s.

A much later arrival was the Auschwitz survivor Sam Moss who came to Australia in 1948 and launched the successful Katies fashion stores in the 1950’s.  He died in 2016 at the ripe old age of ninety.

Of course there were other Moss settlers in Australia who were not Jewish.  Two families who came to Melbourne in the mid-19th century were:

  • Thomas Moss and his wife Mary who left Manchester on an assisted bounty program in 1841.  Their voyage on the Frankfield to Australia was a lengthy one as it went via Rio de Janeiro.
  • and a Moss family from Surrey who departed for Australia in stages in the 1850’s.  The first to leave were the Rev. William Moss, a Congregational minister, and his sister Anne Moss who met her future husband on the journey.

Moss Surname Miscellany

The Moss or Peat Bog in Lancashire.  The term moss for peat bog is widely used in Lancashire.

There was once a great moss that extended widely within the parishes of Manchester and Salford in the 16th century, leaving its name to the Moss Side township that was later incorporated into Manchester.

Then Salford has had its own bog named Chat Moss which comprised about 30% of the town.  Ashton Moss was a 250 acre peat bog within the vicinity of the present market town of Ashton under Lyne.  And Page Moss lay near Huyton on Merseyside.

Meanwhile Lindow Moss was the main recorded peat bog in Cheshire. The peat bogs of Lancashire and neighboring Cheshire have been fast disappearing.  The Lancashire Wildlife Trust has been seeking to preserve many of the remaining mosses in the region.

John Moss of Otterspool House.  John Moss built a new house, Otterspool House, along Ottterspool creek on Merseyside in 1812 and that was to be his home for the remaining twenty five years of his life.

Liverpool was a boom town at that time because of the slave trade and John Moss was part of that boom.  He was first and foremost a banker to the trade.  He also owned up to 1,000 slaves in the Caribbean.  Here he had to react quickly to the mounting anti-slavery legislation which eventually brought about emancipation in 1833.  He and another slaver John Gladstone shipped in paid workers all the way from India to their West Indian sugar plantations, a controversial act at the time which helped to solve their labor problems.

He was also said to have been a railway pioneer.  That is not strictly true.  But prior to the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway, it is believed that George Stephenson, the engineer of the Rocket, stayed at Moss’s Otterspool House and constructed a trial model of the first passenger railway in the world there.

The recent discovery of 312 of his letters, unseen for over 150 years, has enabled new light to be shed on his life.  His story was told in Graham Trust’s 2010 book John Moss of Otterspool.

After he died in 1837, two of his sons, Thomas and Gilbert, continued the banking business.  In 1864 that bank became the joint stock company, North Western Bank. Another son John entered the ministry; while a fourth son, James, founded the Moss Line shipping company of Liverpool. Thomas subsequently married the heiress Amy Edwards of Roby Hall in Huyton, which he made his home.  He became a baronet under the name of Edwards-Moss.

Otterspool House fell into disrepair in the early 1900’s and was no longer occupied by the Moss family.  A renter William Cross started a small zoo in its grounds in 1914.  Liverpool Corporation subsequently acquired the site. Otterspool House was demolished in 1931 and the area is now the Otterspool Park and Promenade.

Moss Potters in Stoke-on-Trent.  One concentration of Staffordshire potters in Stoke-on-Trent was along Red Street in Wolstanton.  The Moss family was the last in Red Street to make crockery, but abandoned it about 1845 for bricks and tiles which they had been making from the 18th century.

Thomas and Henshall Moss were listed in 1796 as manufacturers of earthenware, bricks and tiles.  Henshall Moss also kept the Wheat Sheaf in Red Street.  He died in 1833 at the age of 78.   Meanwhile Richard Moss made earthenware and Egyptian black at Red Street where he also kept the Crown Inn.  He died in 1847 at the age of 64. And Edward Moss was a maltster on Red Street in 1863.

This combination of Moss potter and publican was found elsewhere in Stoke.  Joseph Moss was recorded as a potter on Newport Lane in Stoke in 1818.  He was also listed as the keeper of the White Swan at the same location.

The Jewish Transition from Moses to Moss in England.  Charles Bardsley in his 1896 A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames made the following remarks about Jews in England adopting the Moss surname.

“It is curious to find that the modern practice, whereby Jews settling in England change their surname from Moses into Moss, is supported by the fact that six centuries ago Moss was the English nickname of Moses.”

The Moses families were often Jews of Russian origin who had come to Britain during one of the pogroms against the Jews.  Early details were often vague.  Sometimes birth records were falsified to make it seem that the immigrants were in fact born in Britain.

The change from Moses to Moss made the name fit in more in the English context. Thus Moses Moses adopted the Moss name when he started his clothing store business in Covent Garden (now known as Moss Bros) in 1851.

Some did and some didn’t change their names.  Jacob Moses of London had four sons – Samuel, Moses, Lawrence and David – born in the 1820’s. Samuel, who emigrated to Tasmania and then returned to London, remained Moses. But Moses who went to Australia became Moss; as did Lawrence and David in Canada.

The Moss Farmers in Fairfax County, Virginia.  John Moss was a tobacco farmer in Fairfax county, Virginia at the time of the Revolutionary War. After the war he was a Commissioner of the Land Tax and also served as a justice of the county court.  He built his Green Spring farmhouse at that time, which was to stay with the family until 1840.

By the 1790’s farmers like Moss were no longer growing tobacco. Moss had converted to grass cultivation as tobacco was no longer economically feasible.  It depleted the soil and had limited markets, while grains had become in high demand during the Napoleonic Wars. Tobacco was also a labor-intensive crop and required many slaves.  By getting out of tobacco, John Moss was in a position to liberate his slaves which he apparently did in 1795.

On John’s death in 1810, the farm passed to his elder son William and later to a younger son Thomas.   Both William and Thomas served as clerk of the circuit court in Fairfax county.

Many farmers were leaving Fairfax county at this time and moving to Kentucky and Ohio where they saw better farming opportunities.  It appears that the Moss brothers wished to make the move too as the Green Spring farm was advertised for sale.  They did not move.

The farm was only sold in 1840 after Thomas’s death.   William Moss of the next generation became a doctor instead. He fought and died in the Civil War. Other descendants made their home in West Virginia. 

Anne Moss and Her Voyage to Australia in 1850.  In her family recollections, Sarah Ann Moss wrote much later:

“It must have been early in the year 1850 that my Uncle William and his sister Aunt Anne left England for Australia.  As this happened before I was born I must fall back on what I was told.

The voyage occupied six months in a sailing vessel. I believe it was a beautiful but very monotonous voyage. However, the little God Cupid was busy even in those days.  A good-looking and what is of far more value a good young man (a medical student I believe) fell in love with my aunt and wooed and won her in due course. He used to write long letters to my grandmother in England extolling the virtues of his dear Annie.  His love and admiration did not cease on the wedding day for he continued to be her lover until the day of his death.”

Two years after she arrived in Melbourne, Annie married this young man, John Dunne, at the local Congregational Church.

Moss Names

  • Moses Moss started what became the Moss Bros clothing chain with his first two shops in London’s Covent Garden in 1851. 
  • Ted Moss was a British impresario who founded the Moss Empires theater combine in 1900.  Moss Empires grew to be the largest variety theatre group in Britain and possibly at one time in the world. 
  • Stirling Moss was a British racing driver who was either second or third in the F1 championship each year between 1955 and 1961. 
  • Kate Moss is an English supermodel first discovered at the young age of fourteen in Croydon in 1988.

Moss Numbers Today

  • 34,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 26,000 in America (most numerous in Georgia)
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Moss and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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